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CRITICS' ROUNDTABLE

How we were thrilled

After 25 years, 'Thriller' proves that Jackson's musical glory is worth remembering.

February 12, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

"Beat It": A secret not closely guarded: The uncredited guitarist who whipped out the fluttering, squealing solo on this ode to macho cowardice was Eddie Van Halen, whose extracurriculars ranked among the provocations for singer David Lee Roth's 1985 departure from the megalithic rock band Van Halen. Along with the contributions of jazz and soundtrack legend Quincy Jones as producer, Van Halen's aerodynamic metal flight pumped crossover fuel that would boost the success of "Thriller" -- a gimmick Jackson would later flog with spots from Slash and Carlos Santana. Without the Van Halen precedent, there might have been no collaboration of Run-DMC and Aerosmith on the 1986 rap/rock version of "Walk This Way." (Greg Burk)

"Billie Jean": Twenty-five years later, "Thriller's" central chamber has lost none of its fevered mystery. This is where the album's material plane gives way to a haunted interior, excavated by that remorseless bass line and shaped by a taut interplay of instruments -- the arrangement is ingenious, so lean and spare that it's hard to accept that there are three synthesizers at work. Jackson finds a new voice here, a victim's voice that shudders in the shadows of this remarkable sonic space, lashing at his own naivete and at the false accusers who were just starting to gather at his door. (Richard Cromelin)

"Human Nature": Jackson is a sensual vampire flying over the city looking for juicy necks to bite. A template for new jack swing and hip-hop soul ballads, "Human Nature" is comparatively slower and more intimate than "Thriller's" other songs. "If this town is just an apple, let me take a bite," quivers Jackson's voice over a cascading synthesizer and percolating bass line. Though written by John Bettis and Steve Porcaro of Toto, the lyrics resonate with Jackson's yearning to break free from his tower of celebrity and mingle with young people in a "city that winks its sleepless eye." (Serena Kim)

"P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)": It's all about the chipmunk. The production has a compelling charm already; it's not as forceful as "Beat It" or as slick as "Human Nature," but those squiggly synths and chewy bass lines do their work well. But besides the robo-accented "P.Y.T." hook, what seals the deal is that helium-pitched voice after the bridge. Honestly, to this day, I still can't decipher what line is blurted out, but just the chipmunk effect has been enough to imprint the song in my head for the last quarter century. Given that Kanye West looped the exact same passage for his Grammy-winning "Good Life" only confirms I'm not alone in my infatuation. (Oliver Wang)

"The Lady in My Life": And the '80s pop big bang ends with a . . . whimper? So it might have seemed at the time, this Rod Temperton-penned and arranged trifle closed "Thriller" on an unconvincingly romantic note -- even pre-scandal. Yet today, "Lady" shines for its classic simplicity and nuanced craft, a verse melody straight from vintage Burt Bacharach (the muted trumpet early on leaves no doubt) topped with a chorus that's almost a Stevie Wonder homage. And Jackson's delivery is refreshingly unaffected -- not until shortly before the final fade does he even let out an ooo! No, not a whimper. A sigh. (Steve Hochman)

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